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After Racist Bullying In Hampton Schools, Advocates See Slow Progress On New Equity Approach

Annie Ropeik

Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series. Click here to read part one

We heard yesterday about a family who left the Hampton school district this past spring, saying school officials mishandled their daughter's reports that she was bullied for being black. 

Hampton administrators say they didn't break any rules. But for the past couple years, they've been trying to improve their policies around diversity and equity. 

It's a process many New Hampshire schools have undertaken - where progress and results can be hard to measure.

At the end of last school year, Hampton administrators invited the community to what they called a listening session on diversity

Other schools have held this kind of forum after incidents of racism -- offering a space for frank, even painful conversations about prejudice and reform.

The forum in Hampton started with something easy -- poems for groups to discuss. A participant read one aloud that pondered how plain the world would be if all the trees were oaks. 

"Aren't you glad, my good friend, different though we be, we are here to help each other, I learn from you and you from me," the poem reader finished.

Unlike some attendees, local parent Meg O'Connor thought this missed the mark. O'Connor, who is white, says reckoning with differences and privilege can and should be uncomfortable. 

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Hampton residents - including parent Meg O'Connor, front row at left - attended a listening session on diversity in May. Seacoast NAACP president Rogers Johnson, at right in polo shirt, also joined in.

"Not to bring the group down, but that reality of -- I just wish it was so sweet and cute -- I don't find it is," she says. "And I find I'm part of that problem."  

Breaking down the problem

Later in the listening session, O'Connor asked Hampton Superintendent Kathleen Murphy to talk more about the district's definition of equity, adopted as part of a new school board goal in 2018

"Our frame was that all kids -- all children -- have equal opportunities to be successful," Murphy responded. 

"When it's just that broad statement, how do you actually break it down now so we're all clear on what areas and what we're focusing on first, and next, and ... if there's something written down that we can go by, a framework?" asked O'Connor. 

"So that's a great suggestion for us, is to develop a framework," said Murphy. She and some in the audience laughed. "Yeah, I don't have that answer … Somebody take notes, Lois [Costa, elementary school principal], did you write that down?" 

After the forum, some were critical of the district's seeming lack of urgency or specific next steps. 

Other parents defended the schools, emphasizing positive experiences they've had. 

Tracy Kelly is white with an adopted son who was born in South Korea. She says she doesn't think Hampton has a specific problem with racism:

"I know that there are disparities in income, and some people unfortunately are the victims of other people's ignorance or just flat-out meanness. So we have to take care of that," Kelly says, "but I think in general the community here is very welcoming." 

This debate in Hampton came into focus after one family did not find the community so welcoming. 

Last school year, John and Julie Cochrane, who are white, removed their adopted daughter Kora, who is black, from Hampton schools. The Cochranes say school officials didn't take seriously the racist bullying Kora experienced in first and third grade. 

Superintendent Murphy denies that Kora was bullied or discriminated against. But she says she regrets that Kora felt hurt. It's prompted her and her staff to talk more about making changes.

"Unfortunately this happened to us, but it has raised the level of consciousness for everyone," Murphy says. 

'The words to intervene'

Now, Hampton is working with a group at the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy, called New Hampshire Listens. Director Michele Holt-Shannon says they did two days of training for Hampton staff this summer.

She says single incidents like Kora Cochrane's case do tend to heighten awareness in a school community -- but that ideally, Hampton would only just be getting started. 

"If you're just defending how you're not a bad person, you're not changing the system that we're all living in," Holt-Shannon says. 

Her team is working with a rising number of school districts on diversity issues. They focus partly on specifics, like curriculum, parent engagement and discipline policies. 

"If you're just defending how you're not a bad person, you're not changing the system that we're all living in." --Michele Holt-Shannon, NH Listens

But she says some of the most important work involves tough self-reflection -- one-on-one training with educators to help them reckon with their own implicit biases. 

Superintendent Murphy has expressed interest in this one-on-one training. Holt-Shannon says they're open to offering it in Hampton, but they haven't been asked to yet. 

In general, she says if teachers learn to confront prejudice in themselves, they'll be less afraid to do so in the classroom, or when they overhear students saying hurtful things about each other. 

"White people, myself included, have been taught … you're being racist if you're talking about race. And so a lot of us feel bad talking about it and feel awkward," Holt-Shannon says. "And so when something like that happens, we don't have the comfort and the words to intervene in a way that doesn't make it worse." 

She says once teachers learn to successfully intervene, the next step is to meet with the families -- especially of students accused of racism, even if it seems those families won't reconsider their beliefs.

"You can say, 'I am sorry to hear that. I do want you to know these are the expectations in the school ... you can't create an environment where another kid feels like they can't learn because they're next to someone who has said that they and their family hate them,'" she says. 

Combating stigma

I met with the Cochrane family at their home a few weeks ago. It was thunderstorming outside, and Doodles the retriever lay under the table. Their daughter Kora was off at summer camp that day, but now she's back at her new private school in Massachusetts, where parents John and Julie say she's doing great. 

But they're continuing to push for change in Hampton, working with Rogers Johnson of the Seacoast NAACP. 

This has appeared to rankle school administrators. At the Cochranes' school board hearing in March, Superintendent Murphy said she didn't respond to the civil rights complaint the family lodged with the school because they opted to "involve" the NAACP. 

A couple months later, the school board voted unanimously to amend the minutes of that March meeting, saying that the NAACP's Johnson had left early and missed Hampton officials' "side of the story." Johnson and the Cochranes say he was at that meeting for its entirety. 

Credit Family courtesy
Family courtesy
Julie, John and Kora Cochrane

Asked about this recently, Superintendent Murphy said she welcomes all parties' involvement in Hampton's reform efforts.

At the Cochranes' house, Johnson said he hopes districts like Murphy's will take seriously their responsibility to combat any racism students learn at home, and to protect kids like Kora from being targeted.

"So the fact that she is being called out means that someone educated their child to say that this child is different," Johnson says. "And this is where the school steps in and says, 'there's no difference here.'

"And the fact that that wasn't done then automatically stigmatizes that child to everyone else within that school because you've now pointed out that this child is different," he says.

'We can't get that time back'

For the Cochranes, the trauma of this experience has persisted. 

Dad John says they're dipping into Kora's college fund to pay her new private school tuition, after Hampton declined their request for a tuition reimbursement. The Cochranes don't plan to appeal that decision to the state board of education, saying lawyers have advised against it. 

There are also other costs. John says Kora's mental health -- and her racial identity -- all suffered in Hampton schools. 

"We can't get that time back. There are things now that we wish we could have taught her three years ago, but we were dealing with this situation," John says. "We can't have her go through her life as a victim, though, either. And the issue is, when do we move on?" 

The Cochranes have asked the U.S. Department of Education to open a civil rights case on how Hampton responded to Kora's experience. As of late August, according to an email shared by the Cochranes, the department was still deciding whether to pursue an investigation. 

The family also has until Kora turns 21 to pursue a discrimination lawsuit.  

Meanwhile, Hampton schools are the midst of a new crisis. Superintendent Kathleen Murphy is under fire for her handling of a controversial staffing issue

People concerned about the district's work on equity say it needs to be a priority -- with clear, consistent leadership. Now, they worry that work will continue to take a back seat. 

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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